THE CHALLENGE: Consider new ownership, funding ideas for local news outfits

Submitted by Bill Densmore on Fri, 03/27/2009 – 1:50pm

Session Convenor: Michelle Ferrier and Bill Densmore

Session Reporter: Bill Densmore

Discussion Participants: Participants quoted in these notes include: Lisa Loving, news editor of the Skanner News Group, in Portland, Oregon; Tom Honig, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based free-lance writer; Michelle Ferrier, jouranlism professor; Tom Stites, of the Banyan Project; Jim Kennedy, svp-strategy at The Associated Press; Leigh Montgomery, newsroom librarian at The Christian Science Monitor; Anne Anderson a Safety Harbor, Fla.-based free-lance writer; Tracy Ward Durkin, publisher of the Urbanist in Baltimore, Md.; Cary French, professor, Humber College, Toronto; Ken Carpenter, professor, Valencia Community College; and Mark Briggs of Serra Media/Journalism2.0 in Tacoma, Wash.

These are notes taken by Bill Densmore of discussion during a breakout session on March 2, 2009, at the Poynter Institute convening: “Journalism That Matters — Adapting Journalism to the New News Ecology.” This was one of multiple breakouts called by the 85 participants in the four-day event. The title for this session: “Democracy now: Envisioning a model for franchising news.”  Session participants included Warner N. Sabio, Liz Monteiro, Jim bowey, Jannet Walsh,  Anne Anderson, Bill Densmore, Leigh Montgomery, Jeff Vander clute, Tom Honig, Lisa Loving, Neil Budde, Michelle Ferrier, Jim Kennedy, Lyn Bazzell, Tracy Ward Durkin, Keith Woods, Tim Stites, Michele McLellan and Susan Moeller.

Historically U.S. news organizations have been independently owned by local owners, or have been aggregated into large groups, or “chains” with centralized handling of some administration and business functions, including financial reporting. Other forms of ownership — such as a franchising or co-operatives — are relatively rare in the U.S. news environment. This session briefly examined these and other ideas for ownership and sustainability. These notes are **not** verbatim and specific comments attributed to a speaker should be verified with that speaker (See: PARTICIPANT LIST.)

Lisa Loving of KBOO in Portland, Oregon, observes that institutions that have the most success are those that build community around themselves. The Willamette Week newspaper in Oregon builds community through an active blog-comment area, she says. She notes that the Pacifica Foundation is a listener-supported nonprofit radio network that has had a successful run as a Bay Area-based owner of politically progressive radio stations nationwide but is now undergoing organizational stress.   Tom Hornig asks what a franchise model would look like. There is discussion.

Michelle Ferrier talks about the idea of a national brand for local online news communities. The brand manager, however organized, might handle technical, legal, marketing, sales and training on behalf of affiliates or franchisees. She said the brand manager might also be able to provide interim staffing for independent operators enabling them to take periodic vacations. Ferrier observed that “burnout” is a big source of casualties among small community new sorganizations. And she said having a national infrastructure to call on would “reduce the startup fear factor,” of individuals fearing the unknown.

Ferrier said she was considering a startup in Daytona Beach, Fla., where she formerly ran an online news community for the incumbent legacy daily newspaper. Ferrier now teaches college-level journalism.

Tom Stites said an advantage of a franchse approach is that “you get a network of people who can learn from each other.” A challenge he observed was who was going to pay for what. People will pay to support trustworthy institutions that meet their needs, he said. “To say they will pay for information missses the point.”

Jim Kennedy said that on the web, no one has really done more yet than institute levels of free. “Will you pay for news is too simplistic a question to ask,” he says.

Loving: People pay for cable. But they are paying for choice and convenience, she feels, not content per se. An analogy is that people pay for the service of getting their news delivered via a print product to their doorstep. And for knowing about their kids’ schools.

Leigh Montgomery suggests talking to Ali Savino, citizen journalism expert, co-founder of and until recently from, the Center for Independent Media: (UPDATE: Leigh talked to Savino and notes of her conversation are HERE.

She says a national brand could help establish the opportunity to teach “Journalism 101” in libraries and other community venues.

Anne Anderson talked about the experience of her husband in working in the construction industry. At one time construction companies were indepently owned. Then big-box stories like Home Depot sprang up to offer materials for do-it-yourselfers. Now Home Depot retails the services of contractors to its customers. Her point seemed to be that the national brand — Home Depot — can help to gather customers and funnel them to independents.

Loving talks about the notion of a community information aggregator, such as Blogspot or CafePress. “A Craig’s List for news — that’s where I think it would be at.”

Tracy Ward Durkin talks about as a possible example of a franchisable model.

Ferrier suggests making a list of requirements.

Loving observes that “all kids have smart phones” and get most timely information from them, such as what they are going to do tonight. You could produce a whole newspaper’s worth of material advising kids about what to do. The challenge: How to get kids who are on the streetcorner to care about civic news.

Ward Drukin: Her experience with a Baltimore, Md.-based magazine is that younger folks do care.

Hornig: You have to sugar-coat important stories, says Tom.

Carey French: YOu can’t just give people what they want, it also has to be what they need.

One franchise example cited

Anderson: References C&N Publications Inc. in the Tampa, Fla., area. She says this is a franchise operation which sells a template and technical support. The information in each local-oriented publication (print) is all user generated.

Bill Densmore asks: What will people pay for? Discussion mentiones Angie’s List, which has 750,000 subscribers who pay $7.50 a month for ratings and advice about local service providers; and, which has three million online paying subscribers; the Wall Street Journal and Cooks Illustrated. What do these have in common, the group asks? Answer: Saving time, money, convenience. Densmore mentions, a non-profit site helping people to find and rate quality news. It does not charge, however.

Kennedy suggests starting with a set of solutions that demonstrably work:

  • A cost structure that permis you to operate at some sustainable price poitn
  • Able to be set up right away
  • Can be taken into a community
  • A defined price structure

The challenge is how to deliver content in an exciting way. Kennedy says tha tsomeone started a successful weekly papers from scratch in his town north of New York City. The back page is a full-color photo and profile of a prep athlete in action, sponsored by an advertiser. The publisher started with an untested formula that turned out to work. The news industry how has to figure out what works. “Times up,” he said. “We have to started figuring out what works and do it.”

Loving: It has to be a service that users “can’t live without.”

Ken Carpenter talks about whether “free” can sustain the news industry. He says Exit133 in Tacoma, Wash., is sustained by listing advertising.

Mark Briggs of Serra Media cites NewsGarden, a social newsblogging platform he’s developing. Gazette Communications of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is a client and user of the platform.

Discussion: People want depth on the subject they’re interested in; the ultimate model is a combination of free and paid. Would people pay for school coverage?
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About Peggy Holman

Peggy Holman supports organizations and communities to uncover creative responses to complex challenges using innovative engagement processes. The Change Handbook, co-authored with Tom Devane and Steven Cady, documents many such processes. The book is the considered the definitive resource for leaders and consultants working to increase resilience, agility, and collaboration in organizations and other social systems. Peggy co-founded Journalism that Matters in 2001 with three journalists to support the pioneers who are shaping the emerging news and information ecology. Peggy’s latest book, Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity, supports people facing disruptions to invite others to join them in realizing new possibilities.
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